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Back Pain

What is it?

Back pain is a pain in the lower back (lumbar, lumbosacral regions) or the neck (cervical region).

Causes of back pain1:

  • Stress on the muscles and ligaments that support the spine (a "couch potato" lifestyle, obesity and strenuous sports can increase the stress on these muscles and ligaments)
  • Osteoarthritis (a condition where the surface layer of cartilage breaks down and wears away)
  • Sciatica (inflammation or compression of the sciatic nerve in the lower back)
  • Osteoporosis (a gradual weakening of bones that can lead to painful vertebral compression fractures)
  • Herniated disk (ruptured disk that occurs from normal wear and tear or strain)
  • Fibromyalgia (a chronic syndrome that produces aches, tenderness or stiffness in the muscles and joints where tendons attach to your bones)

Who is affected?

Lower back pain affects four out of five adults in the United States at some point in their lives and will often go away by itself within a few days or weeks1. In fact, surveys show that at any given time, half of all working-age adults suffer from lower back pain.

Costs associated with treating back pain are estimated at $25 billion per year. It is one of the most common reasons for a visit to a primary care doctor2.

What are the symptoms?

Back pain can range from a mild, dull ache to severe and debilitating pain.

What can I do to prevent and treat it?

The following tips can help you prevent episodes of back pain:

  • Exercise regularly and include stretching as part of your exercise routine
  • Quit smoking
  • Lose weight
  • Don't slouch—practice correct posture
  • Use comfortable, supportive seats while driving
  • Sleep on your side with knees drawn up or on your back with a pillow under bent knees
  • ALWAYS bend at the knees rather than the waist
  • Avoid standing or working in any one position for too long
  • Reduce emotional stress that causes muscle tension

If you already have back pain

  • Acute back pain often goes away by itself in a few days or weeks.
  • In addition to medications, limited rest can help. However, prolonged bed rest is not beneficial because it weakens muscles
  • An ice bag or hot water bottle applied to the back (for five to ten minutes at thirty minute intervals) may also help to alleviate pain.
  • Walking or swimming, slowly at first, may aid in your recovery.

OTC medications

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) reduce pain and swelling, however, they can cause stomach irritation and may interact adversely with other drugs. People over age 65 and anyone with a history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding should use NSAIDs with caution and only after consulting with a doctor.

Important additional information

Notify your physician immediately if:

  • There is no relief from pain after a few days of bed rest
  • Pain is severe or keeps reoccurring
  • Radiating pain, numbness, tingling or weakening occurs in the arms or legs
  • Bowel or bladder dysfunction occurs
  • A child or elderly person has back pain
  • Fever and/or vomiting occur with back pain

The following are examples of OTC medications that can be used to treat back pain:


Symptom Relief Helpful Medications Active Ingredients* to Look for in Generic and Name Brand OTC Products

Relieve muscle aches and backache

Pain Reliever

Example: Advil®

Relieve mild to moderate pain, redness, swelling and relieve discomfort

Pain Reliever

Acetylsalicylic Acid 

Naproxen Sodium 
Example: Aleve®

Relieve stiffness caused be inflammatory conditions Pain Reliever Naproxen Sodium 
Example: Aleve®

* Active ingredients: ingredients in a medication that produce a therapeutic response

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina offers a FREE program for members who suffer from 

The program includes education material, personalized support, tools to help you talk with your doctor, and updated information about the latest treatment options.

For more information or to enroll call 1-800-218-5295.

 Download brochure - Taking Care of Pain


1 Gopal, A. "Evaluation and Management of acute Low Back Pain: Careful Examination is Important;Treatment is Usually Nonspecific," Journal of Musculoskeletal Medicine, 2002:19(7) 
2 Wyeth, Inc., "Oh My Aching Back," OTC Self Care Connection

Note: This information is intended to provide readers with health information. The information provided is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider. Brand names included on this Web page are provided for examples only. Their inclusion does not mean that they are endorsed by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.